Almost as soon as telescopes were invented in the 1600's, people were planning how to mount two of them together to create binoculars. It wasn't until 1825 that the first one was actually created in a modern fashion, and since then the industry has exploded.
From hunting to boating, from the military to hobbiests, millions of people use binoculars in their day to day lives.
But, since they range from about $20 to several thousand, choosing exactly the right pair with the right features is key. So, we've compiled the ultimate binocular buying guide to help you sort through the variety of features you need to choose from.
You'll need to think of two things before you get started:
- What is your budget?
- What is the purpose for the binoculars?
Armed with these two pieces of information, you can consider all the nuances and decide what kind of features you need.
In this article, we'll cover:
You can click any of the topics above and it will take you directly to that section.
How Binoculars Work
As we already alluded, binoculars are essentially two telescopes attached together with plastic or metal.
Though ancient Egyptians used chips of crystal or obsidian to magnify and view small objects, the first real magnifying lens was invented sometime around 1220-1292 by English philosopher Roger Bacon.
Even so, it wasn't until 1608 when the German-Dutch lens-maker Hans Lippershey invented the first telescope which ultimately led the invention of binoculars a couple hundred years later.
His early design included a convex objective lens (lens bends outward) and a concave eyepiece (lens bends inward). By 1611 the design was upgraded to have a convex objective lens and convex eyepiece as well. Though the design has been improved over the years, it is fundamentally the same technology as 400 years ago.
Porro and Roof Prisms
You'll notice there are two prisms for each side of the binoculars.
When the light passes through a convex lens, the light will change directions and cause the image to appear upside down.
This is where the two prisms come into play. A prism is simply a wedge of glass which refracts the light. Each time it refracts, the light bends 90 degrees.
So, with two prisms, the light is bent 180 degrees, which makes the image appear the way it should to our eye.
These prisms are why binoculars are so heavy and bulky, especially in the middle (where the prisms are). Not all binoculars have prisms. Some, such as field glasses (or some compact binoculars) flip the incoming light using the lenses. Since there are no prisms, the image quality is poorer (but the binoculars are lighter and more compact).
Roof Prisms vs Porro Prism
The original design was the Porro Prism. this is where the two prisms are arranged at 90 degrees to each other (as in the image above). These are very light-efficient and provide great contrast in the image.
Roof prisms were introduced by Zeiss and Leitz companies in the 1960s with a prism that was in line with the objective and eyepiece lenses. The roof prism created a smaller, more compact, and easier to hold binocular.
But, they were far more complicated to manufacture and required a lot more precision. As such, they cost a lot more. The Porro prism, on the other hand, was simpler, more efficient, showed better contrast, and was cheaper.
Even so, the major binocular manufacturers set out to perfect the design of the roof prism because of the compact design.
They ultimately succeeded and today roof prisms dominate many high-end markets such as binoculars for birding.
There are two major Porro prism designs on the market today, the BAK-4 and the BK-7. You can tell the difference by looking through the binoculars at a distance. The higher quality BAK-4 lens will show a circular exit pupil in the eyepiece while the lower quality BK-7 will show a more squared-off and non-circular exit pupil.
Porro prisms are typically less durable and are usually not waterproof as compared to roof binoculars. A pair of Porro Binoculars has it's place and purpose, but roof binoculars are generally a better buy.
Binoculars 101 - How to Use Binoculars
There are two primary styles of binoculars based on how they focus, the central focusing (CF) and individual focusing (IF) binoculars.
Step 1 - Adjust the Eyecup
If you were eyeglasses, the eye cups should be retracted and the rubber folded back. If you do not wear glasses, extend it fully and set the rubber up.
Step 2 - Adjust the distance to fit your eyes (interpupillary distance)
If the distance doesn't match your face/eyes correctly, it can create a blurry or double vision. Adjust these to fit you until the image is no longer blurred or double.
Step 3 - Focusing (Diopter Adjustment)
CF and IF binoculars will have the focus adjusted differently.
Central Focusing Binoculars
For Central Focusing binoculars, you will first adjust the central focusing ring. You will use your left eye and adjust it until the image comes in clearly.
Once the image is clear in the left eye, you will focus with your right eye and adjust the adjustment ring on the right eyepiece.
Once this is done once, it should be easy to adjust on new objects by using just the central focusing ring.
Individual Focusing Binoculars
The way to focus is very similar, except each eye focuses differently rather than having a central focus ring that controls both.
First, focus the left eye until the image becomes clear. Then, look through the right eyepiece with your right eye and adjust the focusing ring.
When you want to adjust to a new object, you will have to focus both eyepieces again.
Major Considerations When Purchasing Binoculars
Now that we got the history and basics of binoculars out of the way, we can dive into the fundamental considerations when purchasing a pair.
Magnification is one of the first considerations. Lower magnification means you won't get as close to your object or target, but higher magnification will be harder to hold stable.
There is also a trade off between magnification and the overall view. Obviously, the closer up you get on something means you can see less of what's around it.
Usually, either 8x or 10x is considered a good "all-around" magnification for general purposes from hunting to birding.
You'll need to consider if you want higher magnification for something specific then you will need a more stabilized environment such as a chair, laying prone or sitting in a deer stand. Alternatively, you may be OK with lower magnification if you are trying to view a concert or sporting match and want to see the entire field.
Field of View
We've already touched upon this a little bit in the previous section. Field of view for binoculars is the area you can see at a specific distance. For example, you may find a pair of binoculars with 300 ft field of view at 1000 yards. This means you can see 300 ft of area while looking at an object 1000 yards away.
As an object appears larger and larger, you'll see less and less of it's surroundings. So, you will find there is a trade off between magnification and field of view for any pair of binoculars.
In the image above, you can see how a narrow field of view can detract from the overall experience as you can't take in the entire horse race. This particular one is good for seeing your favorite jockey, but not the entire race.
While we could write thousands of words just on the lens, we'll keep it to the most important parts.
When light hits a lens, part of that light is reflected off the surface and lost. So, manufacturers add a thin coating on the lens surface to help reduce the loss and improve overall transmission of light.
There can be a lot of lenses in a scope or set of binoculars, so the coating becomes important. A normal lens can lose around 5% of the light if it is not coated, so binoculars with no lens coating can lose 25, 30, or even 35% of it's light. This will produce a terrible image.
Good manufacturers add multiple coatings on the lenses and can reduce the losses to just the tenths of a percent.
Here is generally what you'll see in the descriptions of binoculars:
When the description says 'coated' it's referring to a thin coating (usually of the anti-reflective magnesium fluorite) on one or more lenses and surfaces.
Here, there is at least one anti-reflective coating on both sides of both the objective and ocular lens system and on the long side of the prism.
With this, there are multiple layers of coatings on one or more of the lens surfaces.
Multi-coating does not mean it's better. Even some of the best binoculars available only have one coat on the outside lens surface. The theory is that one coating is harder and more durable. Also, the light reflected from the outer surface does not have a major impact on image contrast.
There are multiple coatings on all of the lenses and surfaces. You'll generally see this in higher end binoculars.
There is no guarantee that these have the best quality, but it does indicate that the manufacturer is putting in a lot of attention to detail in the design.
Remember the roof prism design we mentioned earlier?
When light passes through these, it gets folded back on itself which can cause some of the peaks of the light waves to line up and go out of phase. This reduces the brightness and sharpness.
So, quality binoculars will add a phase-correcting coating on one face of the prism. This coating delays the light waves enough for the peaks to come back into phase and allowing your image to stay sharp.
This used to be only in high-end models but now you'll find good birding binoculars with phase coating <$150 with prices continuously decreasing.
If you wear glasses then eye relief will be an important factor for you because if the eye relief is to short and you wear glasses, you may only see the center of the image in the binoculars.
Whereas if it has a long eye relief, you'll be able to see the entire image.
When every set of binoculars are made, they each have an ideal distance your eye should be from the eyepiece. This depends entirely on the manufacturing process and measurements they use to make the pair.
What the Numbers Mean
You'll often see binoculars specified by a set of numbers such as 8x42 or 10x50.
The first number indicates the magnification. So, in the first example of 8x42, it has an 8x magnification meaning the object appears 8 times closer.
The second number is the size of the objective lens. So, in the second example of 10x50, the magnification is 10x and the objective lense size is 50mm. A larger lens means more light can enter and you'll get a sharper and more clear image (but a larger set of binoculars).
Zoom binoculars are similar except the magnification can be adjusted. You'll see these listed as 10-22x50 which means the zoom can be as little as 10x or as much as 22x with a 50mm objective lens size.
The Twilight Factor is a number used to compare the effectiveness of binoculars or spotting scopes used in low light.
The twilight factor is found by multiplying the size of the objective lens (in mm) by the magnification and then finding the square root of that result. The larger the twilight factor, the more detail you can see in low light.
A twilight factor of 17 or better if usually required for reasonable low light use.
Major Features to Consider
We've already covered the fundamentals of binoculars. With that information alone you can make a judgement and compare different binoculars.
But, there are a lot of extra features you may want to consider before purchasing your pair.
As the name implies, rangefinder binoculars will tell you the distance to the object you are looking at. For handheld devices this is usually done via a laser.
While just about anyone could benefit from a pair of rangefinders, its most practical use is in hunting.
By being able to discern the distance to the target, you'll know what sort of adjustments to make on your scope or what aiming pin to use on your bow.
There are a ton of reasons why you might want to use your binoculars to take a photo!
It could be breathtaking scenery, a winning goal, or that rare bird you've been meaning to cross off your list. Whatever it is, your binoculars will help you see it and your camera will help you capture that moment!
There are really two ways to go about this - buying binoculars with a camera built in, or buying binoculars with an adapter to fit your smart phone to it.
The benefits to having binoculars with the camera built in is that it will have a balanced weight, be easier to use, and can quickly capture the shot. Though it's built in, it's generally totally separate from the actual binoculars and doesn't use the image produce from the binoculars for it's pictures.
The adapter will allow you to use your smart phone (which, let's be realistic, probably has a better camera anyhow) and the actual binoculars. You'll get a new phone ever few years and always have a better camera while the binoculars with it built in will get old and dated.
But, it will be unwieldy, unbalanced, and slow to set up. So, if a shot suddenly presents itself, you'll probably miss it while getting the camera set up.
Binoculars with a higher magnification will suffer from a difficulty keeping the image steady. The closer the image appears, the bigger the shift in the picture for every movement.
There are two types of stabilization systems - active and passive.
Active stabilization uses a sensor to detect when movements happen, and something inside the binocular is used to offset that movement which could include movement of a lens or prism.
A passive stabilization system uses a gyroscope or other method to adjust for movement and hold the picture steady.
What to Look For in Different Kinds of Binoculars
It's great to have all this information, but what do you do with it?
Since every use will have different needs, let's dive into a few of the most common uses for binoculars
Just to be up front, we could write long articles on every single one of these categories. The purpose isn't go into crazy detail, but to give you enough information to help you make an informed decision quickly.
The biggest consideration for your hunting binoculars will be where you are hunting.
Western hunters who hunt in large open terrains, will likely want around a 10x magnification. You'll be looking long distances in rocky or open terrain, so field of view is important, but you'll be scanning at much larger distances. To balance these out, a 10x is perfect.
It's really difficult to scan with a higher magnification set of binoculars while a lower magnification binoculars don't get you close enough to see those distances.
Also, depending on the distance, you may want to have a laser rangefinder built in to help with your site adjustments.
For forest hunters, you'll find that a lower magnification is better. Around 8x seems to be the best combination. The reality in most forest settings is the animal will be much closer in and it's going to be the flick of a tail or some slight movement that makes you aware of it.
The wide field of view will be what lets you scan and find your target more so than getting up close and personal with it.
Some manufacturers talk up the ruby coatings on their binocular lens. The purpose is to eliminate red light from the image which gives the picture a blue-green appearance. This is fine, except that the coating is highly reflective and reduces brightness, which can significantly impact your ability to see in heavily shaded woods.
Additionally, it goes without saying that it should be subdued or camouflaged in color. You'll want a nice strap and a light pair of binoculars that can hang around your neck all day.
Binoculars for Birdwatching
You're going to want to balance the desire for getting in close to see the detail of the bird and field of view to see the bird moving from branch or branch or tree to tree.
So, most birders actually opt for a 7x or 8x magnification so they can get a good field of view. Consider this before buying birding binoculars.
Some coatings are designed to remove blue from the picture which increases the contrast. This may be good in some settings, but birdwatchers who want to look at plumage, seeing the true color is important. So, try to stick with coatings that are neutral and keep the true color.
Marine, Boating, and Aquatic Use Binoculars
This goes without saying - make sure you get a pair that is waterproof!
OK, now that's out of the way, we can continue on.
For boating or marine use, you'll want a slightly different set of features. The biggest one that is unique will be the bearing compass. This is superimposed near the image and it lets you take a bearing from the object you're pointing at.
These are unique because they will often have a vertical height angle that will allow you to estimate an objects height. With the angle and known point on a map, you can determine its approximate height with some basic math.
You'll also really want a set with image stabilization. It's pretty obvious that the ocean or lakes can be choppy and that can make it really hard to get a steady view. A good image stabilizer will help with that.
Military Grade Binoculars
It is a bit of a misnomer that military grade equipment is always the best.
Generally, the military favors rugged equipment that works with fewer features over nicer and newer equipment that isn't likely to stand up to the rigors of warfare.
For all equipment purchased by the military, it needs to meet certain specifications, also known as mil-spec. Mil-spec binoculars will have to meet certain requirements including resistance to impact, vibration, water tightness and ability to withstand extreme temperatures.
One of the biggest factors is actually the ability to withstand extreme temperatures. Only in the armed forces will a piece of equipment go from the extreme lows of Alaska to the extreme highs of Iraq in the same year, or even same week. The various armed forces have passed over really great equipment before because the same piece of equipment couldn't handle the humidity of the jungle, heat and sand of the desert, and blistering cold of the arctic.
So, if you are looking for something that is mil-spec, you're really focused on durability. While the range of features are all available, mil-spec = durability and all other features are optional.
If you go this route, you'll most likely be purchasing from Steiner or Fujinon, both of which have build and currently build binoculars for the military.
Binoculars for Concerts and Operas
This is a completely different class of binoculars and has some very unique requirements.
Many people are opting for what's known as the Galilean binocular. It has the same design as the original telescope with a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece, which gives you an upright image and eliminates the need for prisms.
You're probably wondering why it's called the Galilean binocular since Hans Lippershey actually invented the telescope. Well, we don't really know the answer to that but speculate it's because Galileo was far more famous so he gets all the credit.
Also, you might be interested in getting a pair of binocular glasses, which would do very well in a concert or opera setting.
Brands to Know
Here are a list of some of the most well known brands and some basics about them.
The company was first established in the 1900’s in Japan and developed their first pair of binoculars around 1917 (called the Atom 6 x 15).
Since then, Nikon has had an excellent reputation and quest to produce the best binoculars at the most reasonable prices imaginable.
Nikon began creating optics for cameras and other devices and from then on they became one of the most reliable brands for binoculars on the market.
Why? Their reputation for quality and precision make them excellent for pretty much any endeavor you could imagine - hunting, fishing, bird watching, astronomy, nature walks, even golfers and sports fanatics find an excellent use for their Nikon binoculars.
Nikon also has a penchant for quality, with a 25 year warranty on every single one of their binoculars, and each and every pair is handcrafted for quality, completely fog-proof and weather proof, and rugged enough to withstand even the most brutal lifestyle.
What’s great about Nikon is that you’re buying a quality symbol of American craftsmanship (since Nikon moved to the U.S. in the 1950’s) that has amazing potential for your active lifestyle.
Perfect for travel, adventures, movies, theaters, spectator sports and everything in between, when you buy Nikon, you know you’re getting the best.
Some names become synonymous with a product they sell.
- You hear the word hamburger, you think McDonald’s.
- Thinking of motorcycles? You think of Harley.
In the world of binoculars, the name that summons up that kind of recognition of quality and stimulates that level of brand loyalty Bushnell.
That is the name that picked up 'Binoculars of the Year' honors every year from 2011 to 2014.
The company was founded and named after David Bushnell who graduated from USC with a degree in business and established an import/export company founded upon the concept of trading in low-priced manufactured goods from around the world.
It was while on his honeymoon that Bushnell became fascinated with a pair of binoculars shown him by a Japanese counterpart. He instantly recognizing that post-World War II Americans were going to be exploring the natural wonders of their country to degree not experienced since the pioneer days.
Bushnell narrowed the focus of his company and revolutionized the binocular industry by making them widely available to the average person for the first time ever.
When it comes to top-of-the-line binoculars, Fujinon binoculars stands out from the rest of the crowd with some of the best binoculars.
Maritime commanders, officers in the Navy, United States Marines, and those looking for high-end optical performance all have fallen in love with Fujinon binoculars, and for good reason.
In fact, Hollywood itself has also had a bit of a love affair with Fujinon binoculars and the odds are that if you’ve seen any movie set on a seafaring vessel you’ve seen a pair of these almost over-sized binoculars featured at some point in time.
Fujinon binoculars are engineered to perform in just about any weather condition. The optics have been optimized for high contrast so that you can spot anything on the high seas.
These are well-designed binoculars that should serve you well for years and years to come.
Even if you never intend to pilot a ship but just want some binoculars you’ll appreciate all of the attention to detail that Fujinon binoculars are designed and built around.
Though not as popular in the United States as they are in Europe, Minox binoculars are beginning to develop into some of the best binoculars available. Though they were known for their engineering and high quality optic performance ever since the early 1920s, it wasn’t until after World War II had ended that the Minox really started to catch on.
First producing spy cameras and a number of other high-end film-based cameras, there binoculars have gained global attention for their quality and visual clarity.
All but entirely abandoning their line of film cameras today, you can expect a near perfect level of attention given to each and every one of their Minox binoculars. Though a little bit on the more expensive side (you certain you pay for the German engineering and high-quality components), they rival any of the other high-end and almost luxury binoculars out there today.
Somewhat simple, somewhat understated, but undeniably rugged and well-made, you’ll appreciate the fine level of detail that these Minox binoculars have been crafted to. You’ll want to read this quick review to determine whether or not either of these two binoculars platforms are right for your needs.
Unlike many high-end binoculars brands out there, Vortex binoculars do not have a decades-long reputation to fall back on. The Vortex binoculars were originally created in 2000 as an “in-house” brand of high-end binoculars for a bird watching and optics store which was established in the early 1980s in Wisconsin.
Vortex binoculars have quickly blossomed into some of the best binoculars available on the market today.
Designed, developed, engineered, and manufactured in the United States, these binoculars are designed for hunting, bird watching, as well as sporting and recreation and law enforcement or military applications.
Offering a wide range of options (including spotting scopes, rifle scopes, and other high-end optics), Vortex binoculars are there best-selling products – and it’s easy to see why!
Steiner binoculars are widely considered to be some of the best binoculars available on the planet. Steiner binoculars are used by all of the major armed forces in the United States and around the world – including the United States Marine Corps. Steiner binoculars have certainly earned their reputation for performance, durability, and crystal-clear optics.
Offering a wide variety of binoculars options for the amateur, serious hunter/tournament shooter, and a number of military and law enforcement specific lines. With Steiner binoculars you’re going to be able to find the perfect set of binos for your needs.
High quality through and through (and leveraging some of the best construction materials available), you can tell just by looking at these binoculars that they are something special.
Best Binoculars Under $500 (Best Binoculars Under £500)
It's pretty hard to pick what the "best" binoculars are, especially with so many different uses and needs out there. Even though the task is so difficult, we'll try out best to highlight some of the top binoculars out there.
Top Binoculars Under $300 (Best Binoculars Under £300)
Why not do a list under $200 / £200, or 100, or whatever?
While you can get some acceptable binoculars in the $100/£100 price range, you don't really get into great quality binoculars until right around the $200 mark, so it made more sense to look in the $200-$300 range.
It was tough, but we were able to find 5 great pairs of binoculars in this price range from quality brands!
Best Binoculars For The Money
This is really subjective, but then again, everyone's list of "best" anything is subjective.
To determine the "best" for the "money," first we need to define what the "best" is.
In order to determine the best for the money, let's look at a few categories:
- Versatile - we want to be able to use it for hunting, sightseeing, birding, etc. The wider applications the better.
- Weight - lighter is better
- Weatherproof - The more weather resistant thebetter
- Brand/Warranty - Is the brand well known and do they stand by their products
- Price - How much of this can we get for the lowest price possible?
Now that we've defined the criteria, it's a little easier to narrow it down.
There are a TON of good products in this category, but after a lot of deliberation, we really like 2.
Steiner Predator 10x42 Binoculars
The Steiner Predator 10x42 Binoculars are both light and versatile. From hunters and hikers, to birders or adventurers, these binoculars fit the bill.
The predator series is made for people who want all-around capability. Mobility, ease of use, bright picture in any light.
It has a lightweight roof prism design with game revealing color adjusted transmission coatings that works great in low-light conditions.
It also has great sharpness with minimal rotation of the central focusing wheel which is ideal for quick focusing and tracking moving objects such as birds.
Oh, and it's waterproof and fog resistant and backed by their lifetime warranty that is transferable, requires no receipt or warranty card.
It's really hard to beat all the features, and all of that in the low $300 upper £200 price point.
Nikon 7576 Monarch 5 8x42
The first one we picked was a 10x42, but we felt we needed a good 8x magnification binoculars in here as well. Both have a lot of versatility and can be used in a ton of applications.
The Monarch 5, besides being one of the most well known lines in the binocular world, boasts the Nikon premium ED glass for sharper, clearer, and more brilliant field of view.
It's also waterproof, fog proof, and has a rubber armor.
It's very small and portable, so it's perfect to take with you anywhere from hunting to birding, and has rich, accurate colors.
All of this starting in the upper $200 range. It's truly a great bargain.
Did We Miss Anything?
Leave us your thoughts and input in the comment section. If we missed anything, we'd love to add it! So, let us know what you think!